Case Status: Cert Petition Pending

Alaska’s Power Grab Threatens Family’s Access to Home

  • U.S. Supreme Court
Vern and Levi Fiehler

Fiehler v. Mecklenburg

Family Home Under Threat

Vern Fiehler’s house sits on a parcel of land in Tee Harbor, near Juneau, Alaska. His plan was to give the family home to his son Levi, who has already invested some of his own earnings into preserving the property, but following an unconstitutional judicial opinion urged by the state government, the Fiehlers may lose all reasonable access to their house.

Like many homes in Alaska, the Fiehlers’ house sits on a plot that is largely inaccessible except by boat–separated from the nearest road by half a mile of northern wilderness. The water can be quite turbulent, and the small beach in front of their house provides the only point of access and departure on the otherwise rocky shoreline.

Anthony and Catherine Mecklenburg, neighbors on an abutting parcel, wanted to expand their own beach access and filed suit in state court challenging the property lines that were established by a federal surveyor nearly a century ago.

As with most land in Alaska, the federal government once owned both the Fiehlers’ home site and the Mecklenburgs’ parcel. Through a pair of Homestead Acts, a federal surveyor mapped the land around Tee Harbor, and in 1938, surveyed the two lots now at issue. The property line was marked by a brass cap that stands as a marker to this day.

The Mecklenburg’s hired a surveyor to try to prove that the 1938 federal surveyor erred in marking the adjoining property boundaries with a brass monument. Alleging that the federal government had improperly surveyed the land, the Mecklenburg’s proposed a revision to the property lines that would completely block the Fiehlers’ beach access.

Alaska’s Overreach

Contrary to two centuries of federal precedent, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed a decision to redraw the property lines in favor of the Mecklenburgs and strip the Fiehlers of their critical beach access. Over the 19th century, the Supreme Court developed a clear and durable rule deeply rooted in the federal government’s power to regulate new territories, now known as Cragin’s Rule, that the federal government’s surveys are “unassailable” by the states.

To populate the expanding western frontier of the United States, the federal government set up firm legal guardrails to protect homesteaders from the potential predations of future state actors.  It commissioned its own surveyors to protect federally established property rights for anyone brave enough to leave the comforts of the developed areas and tame the new territories.

As practical as it is principled, Cragin’s Rule honors this vital American policy by protecting property owners’ reliance on federal property boundaries from subsequent revisions by establishing the federal surveyors’ findings as the final word.

As the Fiehlers’ case illustrates, homesteaders rely on this federal protection to this day. Congress has disposed of approximately 1.3 billion acres of public land. If others imitate Alaska and disregard traditional federal surveys, millions of Americans, especially in 37 non-original states, will be vulnerable to uncertainty regarding their property. The mischief would be “incalculable” as one court put it.

Despite this history and longstanding Supreme Court precedent, the Alaska government took Mecklenburg’s side in the dispute and successfully urged the state court to overturn the original federal survey. The decision is contrary to both the Constitution and the findings of 11 state courts and a federal court of appeals.

Supreme Court Challenge to Government Power

CIR has teamed up with veteran Supreme Court advocate Kannon Shanmugam of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP —who has argued 38 cases in the Supreme Court—to file a petition for writ of certiorari in the Supreme Court on the Fiehlers’ behalf. The joint weight of the constitutional significance of the case, the reputation of our illustrious co-counsel, and Alaska’s conflict with other courts on this issue, gives us every reason to hope that the Supreme Court will hear the Fiehlers’ righteous case.

Fiehler is the second case in CIR’s Project to Restore Competitive Federalism. The case highlights the need for a strong defense of individual rights from both federal and state government abusive overreach.

Updates on this Case

CIR Petitions SCOTUS Challenging Alaska Power Grab

  • Federalism

CIR has teamed up with veteran Supreme Court advocate Kannon Shanmugam to file a cert. petition with SCOTUS asking the High Court to review an unconstitutional Alaska Supreme Court decision that will deprive a family…